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Nobel Prize Turns Spotlight on Climate Change as IPCC Warns Time is Running Out

By Amy Brown

The timing underscored the urgency—and the opportunity. The same day that Americans William D. Nordhaus and Paul Romer were awarded the 2018 Nobel Economics Prize on Monday for bringing long-term thinking on climate issues and technological innovation into the field of economics, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a dire warning that time is running out to address climate change.

Nordhaus, Professor of Economics at Yale University, was acknowledged by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis, while Romer, Professor of Economics at New York University, was singled out for integrating technological innovations into long-run macroeconomic analysis. Both are pioneers in adapting the western economic growth model to focus on environmental issues and sharing the benefits of technology.

The urgency of their work couldn’t be more timely. The landmark IPCC report warns that immediate consequences of climate change are worse than previously thought, with worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040. Avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent,” says the UN’s scientific panel.

“One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” said Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I.

The report was the first to be commissioned by world leaders under the Paris agreement, the 2015 pact by nations to fight global warming

The report “is quite a shock, and quite concerning,” Bill Hare, an author of previous IPCC reports and a physicist with Climate Analytics, a nonprofit organization told the New York Times. “We were not aware of this just a few years ago.”

Still time to act

Yet both the Nobel Prize winners and the IPCC report offer room for optimism—if the world is prepared to grasp the opportunity. Preventing an extra single degree of heat over the next few decades could make a life-or-death difference for millions of people and ecosystems on Earth, the IPCC report stated. A number of climate change impacts could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5ºC compared to 2ºC, or more. For instance, by 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C.

“Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5ºC or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.

According to the IPCC, the world has about a decade to cut carbon emissions in half before the lower goal slips away. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050

Reason for optimism

The Nobel Prize winners believe that solutions are at hand, if the world gets serious about seizing them.

Nordhaus told Reuters that he was being honored for his work on carbon tax as a mechanism to reduce global warming. “It was for work on one of the most important problems the globe faces, which is climate change,” he said. “I’ve been working on that for almost 40 years, and the time’s ripe.”

"It's entirely possible for humans to reduce carbon emissions," Romer said at the press conference announcing the Nobel Prize. "There will be some trade-offs, but once we try we will find that it wasn't as hard as we thought it would be."  

Growth at any cost?

It is this idea of trade-offs, however ,that has some economists objecting to the Academy’s choice. Both laureates’ work emphasize growth as the ultimate measure of an economy's success--an approach some economists argue has contributed to the climate crisis.

"I would say [this prize] is the last hurrah of a certain old guard of the economics profession that want to preserve the idea of growth at all costs," Julia Steinberger, an ecological economist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, told Science Magazine.

Ecological economists argue that models focusing on economic growth as the measure of a policy's success leads to trade-offs to increase growth in the short term, on the assumption that it will make it easier to deal with the increased environmental damage in the long term.

The debate is valid, but the greatest risk is to do nothing and stay on the path of business-as-usual.

If, as the IPCC warns, limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities, there is no time to waste.

This week’s Nobel Prize laureates and the IPCC report make that adamantly clear.

Image credit: Docent Joyce

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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